Overcoming Despair About the Climate Crisis



by John Bell


We face an unprecedented threat to human and planetary life as we know it. Half our fellow species extinct by end of this century is an unthinkable loss. 

We know the following:
· Himalayan glaciers are shrinking year by year, causing depletion of waters of the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, Yellow, and Mekong rivers, on which one-sixth of humanity depends for irrigation water for food production. The water flow of these rivers is already vastly diminished during the growing season. And if present warming trends continue, these glaciers may disappear by 2035. An unthinkable loss.
· With a small temperature rise, polar ice caps melt and the seas rise a meter; if the Greenland ice sheet melts completely, the seas rise seven meters. Then, all major port cities are under water: New York, Calcutta, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Dhaka, and London. Unthinkable loss.
· Millions of climate refugees fleeing their homes due to rising seas is an unthinkable loss;
· A plastic debris garbage pit in the Pacific Ocean as large as the lower 48 states is an unthinkable loss.

Here’s the situation: Due to human activity, suffering is already baked into the system, and the following impacts can be expected throughout the 21st century (source: IPCC report, March 2014 http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/ ).
· Best case: even if we take immediate, bold, aggressive action to counteract climate change, nearly every corner of the globe will suffer some combination of scarcity of fresh water, lower crop productivity, or coastal flooding due to rise in sea levels.
· If we take the current slower, more piecemeal and moderate approach, crop yields will drop in many parts of the world, driving up food prices; ill-health will increase especially in low-income countries; violent conflicts in the form of civil wars and inter-group violence will intensify, amplified by drivers of conflict—increasing poverty and population growth; climate change impacts will slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security; climate change will lead to a rise in political and social unrest and instability
· And finally, if present trends continue, by end of century, one-half of all existing animal or plant species will be extinct. Gone forever.

Yet we continue. In the face of these horrifying scientific predictions, we continue to increase CO2 emissions; the fossil fuel industry continues to be committed to burning the reserves in the ground that are seven times what the atmosphere can absorb for healthy existence; politicians worldwide continue to refuse to mobilize truly transformational policies that could curb emissions; in an endless pursuit of profit corporations continue to grow the global economy, which adds more gas to the fire, literally; we continue to produce more human babies, who need more of everything; and we continue to consume as if there were no tomorrow, which, eventually, if present trends prevail, there might not be for us humans.

What is Right View in this situation? So, how are we to understand and relate to climate change from a Buddhist perspective? What might Right View toward the climate emergency be? What follows are my opinions, and only my opinions, because we cannot know what will happen or how it will happen. But one guide I’ve found useful for most of my adult life is that in the absence of certainty, we should choose a point of view that leads to the most positive, pro-life outcomes, as far as we can tell. So here are six interdependent elements of my attempt at Right View.

1. Climate emergency is a dharma door. I see climate change as a dharma door to liberation; a chance to open to our interconnectedness, to practice understanding and compassion at even deeper level, to transform our greed, anger, and ill-will at both an individual and collective level in order to awaken to our true nature. The climate crisis clearly shows us the reality of interbeing. Some examples: (a) There is no safe place to throw anything away: the North Pacific Garbage Gyre 1,500 miles west of Seattle, the layer of atmospheric greenhouses gases six miles above the earth, and our own human bodies that contain over 200 health endangering substances, end up being repositories of the toxins and waste of human activity; (b) emitting CO2 anywhere affects the atmosphere everywhere; (c) rising temperatures decrease crop yields that increase food prices that cause more hunger that spur immigration, which breeds unrest, which calls forth military repression that soaks up society’s resources and contributes to more global warming and so on in endless connection. This is because that is.

That’s one aspect of interbeing. Another aspect is the awareness of I am not separate from the earth, but of it. When John Seed, a rainforest activist was asked how he handles despair he said: “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into human thinking.”

And here’s Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of having some comfortable conditions for this small self, which we destroy our large self. If we want to change the situation, we must begin by being our true selves. To be our true selves means we have to be the forest, the river, the ozone layer.”

Another aspect of interbeing is the recognition that I share Buddhanature with all creatures and plants and with every other human being, with the Maldive islanders who are losing their island to rising sea levels and also with the oil barons, the Koch brothers, and climate crisis deniers. To deal with our judgmental and polarizing minds helps us overcome the feeling of separation, and helps us “look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.”

2. What’s inside us shows up outside us. To a large extent, the world reflects our collective consciousness. If the world is hurting, then we must be hurting. If the world is polarized into us and them, the good and the bad, then we must be divided inside ourselves. The three poisons at the root of suffering that Buddha identified 2,600 years ago as greed, hatred, or ill-will, and the delusion that we are separate beings have become institutionalized as corporate capitalism, militarism, and nationalism and other forms of separatism. So, transforming ourselves is the starting place. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it this way: “All lasting and meaningful change begins on the inside.” Our personal practice goal is to transform greed into generosity, ill-will into compassion, and delusion into wisdom. Likewise our collective practice goal is to transform an ever-expanding for-profit economy into one of sharing and sustainability; transform militarism into peaceful non-violent and kind relations; and to transform the underlying story of western civilization from one of separation to one of interbeing (to use Charles Eisenstein’s frame).

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way: “If we continue abusing the Earth this way, there is no doubt that our civilization will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction.”

3. The path of personal transformation is not separate from the path of social transformation. It is delusion to think that I can be truly happy even when the world is messed up. Put another way, the source of most of our personal suffering is that each of us is embedded in a worldwide web of suffering from which we cannot escape even if we deny it, look away, distract ourselves, or muffle ourselves in safe sanghas. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Happiness is not an individual matter.” In other words, because of interbeing, what hurts you hurts me. During the long struggle to end apartheid, the South Africans recognized the social nature of hurt when they would chant, “An injury to one is an injury to all. An injury to one is an injury to all.”

We may be lucky enough to carve out a modicum of individual well-being, protected from the harshest of conditions. This is wonderful. Freedom from want, fear, and persecution is what every human deserves and desires. Our mindfulness practice of developing peacefulness and happiness that are not dependent on conditions is a beautiful practice. But if this practice serves to isolate us from the suffering of the world or reinforces our feeling of powerlessness, that the world’s problems are just too big for me and there’s not much I can do, then our practice needs deepening still so that we understand that we are transforming our “personal” suffering, in order to better assist others to transform their suffering, in order that collective suffering can be transformed. This is because that is.

4. Feelings of despair, powerlessness or hopelessness that arise about climate change were there long before we ever knew about climate change. When we were children, we experienced so much that was wrong or hurtful or confusing or scary, even in the best of childhoods. And these things were way beyond our power to change. We were small and powerless. So we internalized those feelings of being too small and too powerless to make a difference on big things. So now we carry these feelings with us and they get attached to the big “wrongs” like climate change, racism, poverty. I’m just not big enough. But what if climate catastrophe is not inevitable? What if we are big enough to tackle this? What if this is just the right level of challenge to slingshot us through to the next level of collective consciousness? What would we do if we adopted this view?

Of course, we can’t think our way to this point of view. We need courage to feel the old feelings in order to transform them. In our meditation practice, our sanghas, support groups, therapy sessions, and friendships, can we make the commitment to find ways of accepting, embracing, and feeling those old feelings, and releasing them so that they gradually lose their constraining hold on our unlimited capacity to love and act? For the past 29 years, I have maintained a weekly co-listening session with a friend. Each week, I listen to him for 45 minutes, then he listens to me for 45 minutes. No advice, no agenda other than allowing ourselves to feel the feelings that arise. Along with meditation, this deep-listening process over the years has helped me explore and release the early childhood hurts and increasingly uncover my innate capacity to care, to think clearly, and to act more fearlessly, which has allowed me to be more effective in social change work. This is because that is.

5. Another delusion: there’s not enough. Many of us have been deeply conditioned in scarcity thinking: there’s not enough love, or food, or resources, or money, or time, or human goodness. It’s survival of the fittest. Got to get mine, protect mine. It’s helpful to remember that for most of us in the sangha these are notions, a highly reinforced point of view, not reality. Try another point of view: There is enough goodness, enough time, enough love, period. And enough money, enough food, enough resources—if distributed differently.

6. Choose love over fear; awareness over denial. Impermanence is real; change is going to come due to the climate crisis—some of it very harmful and hurtful. It’s not that that the earth is threatened. The planet has survived many major upheavals. If humans create conditions that make the earth uninhabitable for humans and most species, the earth will shrug us off, and take another 100 million years to evolve new forms of life.

But collectively we humans might need to learn our lessons, to help us transform—the seas will roll in on the coasts; the water shortages will create more hunger; the loss of species will cause untold suffering. Will we choose to train ourselves to love and care for each other through it all? We going to take our hits, but we have an opportunity to truly wake up. Human consciousness and civilization will change, but how, we can’t predict. We don’t know how this movie ends. But we need to prepare for shifts. What kinds of vision, processes, structures, communities, and healing methods can we create to prepare for shifts?

Seventy-five percent of all mammals gone in next couple hundred years? Half of all species gone by 2100? This should keep us awake at night. Why doesn’t it? Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and environmental activist says that denial, both individual and collective denial, is the greatest danger we face.

We’re more concerned with our own personal suffering, which distracts us from seeing what’s happening to the planet. For those of us who sense what’s happening, it’s too much to look at. We shut down. We feel alone. What wakes us up? Rumi said, “Sit, be still, and listen, for you are drunk, and we are at the edge of the roof.” We are at the edge of a wasteland. And we’re in a trance. First step is to pay attention. Be present. Start where we are. Whatever we really pay attention to we fall in love with. That calls up compassion. We feel for the clear cutting of the forests where we grew up, or the destruction of the coral reefs where we snorkeled, or the extinction of a beloved animal. What wakes us up is love. We have to touch what we love. We need to belong to our world, love our world, get connected to the natural world, and do it together, as a sangha.

Fully facing the climate crisis offers us the chance to liberate the best in human nature, like our love of the natural world, its creatures, its diversity, its beauty, and to liberate it in the present moment, despite what might happen in the future. If you are awake to potential damage, then you’re more tuned in to what needs to be done to avert more damage. Once you know, you can’t in good conscience continue to create more damage. As we face the climate crisis without numbness, we’ll find ways of serving, loving, and healing that we never knew were possible.

What would it mean if each of us took full responsibility, self-defined, for the well-being of the earth and its creatures? Everything in my power. Do no harm. Deepen inner peace for outward action. Act as a change agent. Model exemplary behavior. Live the Five Mindfulness Trainings impeccably. The Dalai Lama says, “We are the pivotal generation”.

What would a big, hairy audacious goal be for the climate crisis movement? What are we called to do that is covered by feelings of confusion, despair, grief, and anger? What if we blew the top off our timidity and confusion to rise up to our fuller calling? Might we see a flourishing of compassion, a developing economy of sharing, a deepening knowing of our interdependence, a beginning anew in mending our ruptured racial relationships, a growing harmony among nations, an increasing wisdom about living lightly on the earth, and an enlivening ability to enjoy the present moment? No guarantees, but the effort is surely worthy of our Buddhanature.


A talk by John Bell (Order of Interbeing member, Dharma teacher and community builder) for Mountain Bell Sangha Day of Mindfulness, Jan 11, 2015, adapted for Religious Socialism and reprinted by permission of the author.